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Perturbation #2 – ‘’Decathlon at the skate park?”

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During recent television coverage of the World Athletics Championships panellists and commentators discussed the phenomena of a multi-event (Heptathlon and Decathlon) developmental path. Much focus was paid to athletes who medalled in individual events who had a prominent multi-event background. Most notably gold medallists Dafne Schippers (200m) and Karsten Warholm (400mH) have both been successful in Heptathlon and Decathlon prior to winning in individual events. In all, 28 finalists outside of the heptathlon and decathlon, came through a multi-event pathway. It is not a big surprise that multi-eventers are good athletes, but it is worth considering why having a diverse background is beneficial for developing athletes.

 

Recent research has centred on debating the optimal route for developing talent, with two distinct paths siting at opposite ends of a continuum; early specialisation versus a diversified or a sampling strategy. What is agreed is that it takes a sustained period of time for potential talent to emerge as a senior performer. The LTAD model that is prevalent in most governing body coach education programmes has for a long time advocated a multi-event approach in youth athletics. There has however been a lack of theoretical explanation to convince coaches or its effectiveness beyond the idea that it supports the establishment of fundamental movement qualities. A potential framework to explain the potency of a multi-event approach is Ecological Dynamics (Davids et al., 2015). This perspective views athletes as dynamic adaptive systems whose actions emerge as a result of their interactions within their environment. In this way it is suggested that a multi-event programme provides an optimal environment for the development of talent in athletics.

 

A prominent characteristic of a multi-event programme is the switching between running, jumping and throwing activities in a single session. This requires athletes to develop skills to adapt to changing practice environments. One way the coach can exploit this is to match activities with overlapping rhythms and performance characteristics. For example high jump take-off and javelin delivery positions share features that athletes can become implicitly aware of. An understanding of how each individual event compliments and influences another is a key coaching principle for the effective coaching of multi-events. Developments in one event influences subsequent performance in another, in this way multi-events can be viewed as complex system of interacting components that interact with the athlete to create athleticism. Therefore the strength of such a programme is its variety, coaches are able to use contrasting or complimentary activities to stimulate the self-organising potential of the athlete. For example the drive across a discus circle can be linked to forces and experiences in the block clearance of a sprint. By harnessing the interaction and overlap between events coaches are able to challenge athletes with the complexity of the task without making it overly complicated.

 

The time constraint placed upon programming for multi-events favours a principally simplified approach to practice design in contrast to an overly a drills lead design. The simplification of practice is typically characterised by short approach jumping, half throws (e.g. South African throw in Discus, not a standing throw) and minimum dosages of speed and hurdle clearances. This approach corresponds with the theory of perception-action coupling in ecological dynamics. Learning can be explained by the joining of key information present in the task and specific actions, for example executing a take-off based on perceptions of the approaching board and sand pit in long jump. It is important that simplified tasks retain the key information that an athlete will use to regulate their performance in a competitive situation. Athletes who experience practice in this way are capable of self-regulating when it comes to competition and display a more independent and flexible approach.

 

Coaching in athletics can be described as highly technical, in fact some events compete to be the most technical, and the prevalence of mechanical models is seen in all events. The amount of content that a coach has to include within their programmes constrains them to organise bitesize chunks of purposeful and meaningful activity. Multi-event athletes are required to be adaptable to their task and the changing environment, in this way a focus on the individual performers own unique intrinsic dynamics provides an opportunity for athletes and coaches to discover individual solutions to perform most effectively. A strong understanding of the principles of each athletic event, as well as a strong understanding of the learning process is a must for coaches to design effective representative tasks scaled to the individual abilities of the athlete.

 

A key principle of an ecological rationale is the emergence of technique based on individual and task constraints. This is sometimes referred to as style and represents the potential for a young athlete to express themselves which is intrinsically enjoyable and motivating. A task focused approach involving minimal instruction is an effective method to support the athlete’s attempts to satisfy the specific task constraints. Again variety acts as an important component in the developmental system as it promotes adaptive behaviour. A defining characteristic of expert performance is the ability to be responsive to the dynamics of a performance environment and find a way to succeed. Athletes who practise a more focused or specialised route may well not experience such challenges as this style of coaching tends to be drawn toward comparative coaching against an idealised movement model, athletes therefore miss out on the opportunities to learn the best way of performing a particular event for them.

 

The ability to select from a wider range of movements is advantageous to avoid the potentially restrictive and highly repetitive movements in a single event specialised programme. Developing a wide ranging repertoire of athletic movements impacts the fundamental physical abilities of the athlete e.g. balance, coordination, speed and strength. These physical attributes become critical to sustain individual development which is important in retaining and motivating athletes. Switching between events during difficult periods add opportunities to seek improvements and therefore motivation from different areas. For example reduced coordination during a growth spurt has a negative influence on dexterous tasks such as hurdling which can be potentially frustrating, however the increased limb length is beneficial in throwing events. In this way a more diverse programme supports development of intrinsic motivation and resilience qualities in young athletes.

 

The multi-events phenomena appears to exist in athletics as it is an ideal framework and environment to create learning and developmental experiences with young athletes. The complex interaction of an individual athletes intrinsic abilities and the tasks of running, jumping and throwing leads to the promotion of self-organisation and adaptive movement qualities. The switching between athletic events requires a simplified task approach that promotes individual solutions and increases the opportunities for implicit learning. Athlete motivation is closely linked to development and perceptions of competence which can be more effectively negotiated with a multi-events approach.  

 

Creating a programme based on a broad range of athletic experiences is clearly beneficial to the long term development of athletes. What if we took a step away from athletics to consider the potential participating in multiple sports might have on the development of youth athletes? Rene Wormhoudt (in the soon to be published book Athletic Skills Model) advocates the use of donor sports to develop a wide range of athletic skills and qualities that can then be transferred to a focus sport later along the developmental pathway. The figure below attempts to represent how this might look for a youth athlete with a potential to focus on hurdling in athletics. The donor sports are chosen to either compliment or add a contrasting skill to the athletes’ repertoire of movements, physical and psychosocial development. The engagement in a multi-sport approach extends the multi-event phenomena beyond those athletes already engaged in athletics and opens the door to others who may be developing in parallel environments ready to transfer over at a later time point.  

 

Perhaps we should be visiting the skate park more to develop the next generation of athletes?

Fig 1.0 Potential donor sport model for developing hurdles athletes in athletics, inspired by The Athletic Skills Model (2017).

 

If you enjoyed this you can find all my other ConnectedCoaches blogs here.

References

 

Davids, K., Araújo, D., Seifert, L. and Orth, D., (2015). An ecological dynamics perspective. Routledge handbook of sport expertise, p.130.

 

Wormhoudt, R., (2017). The Athletic Skills Model: Optimizing Talent Development Through Adaptability and Variation. Routledge.

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Comments (3)

   
pippaglen

Hi Mark Great read.

As an athletics coach I have spent much time with young athletes 9 to 16 year old coaching multi events in athletics (RJT) and (ABC). I have watched athletes perform in all athletic competition events seeing how athletes are able to jump from one event to another without even thinking about it they just get on with it. Multi event allows the athletes a variety of options in athletics not only does it build the foundations of a specific event if later on they decided to compete in event specific they have the foundations from multi event training to help them on the cross over to specific event. . Most of what is coached in multi event athletics also crosses over to other sports, I have coached young footballers, gymnasts, rugby, and decathlon who have come to training sessions to help with their fitness to keep their fitness levels up before the next season starts, although they are lost when season starts again I know that what they have learned has helped them towards their main sport.

I think England athletics should make it compulsory for athletes from 8 to 16 to take part in multi event athletics rather than go into event specific this way athletes have developed the foundation of all events, once the foundations are in place this then allows athletes to choose to become event specific or multi event.
I have worked with the 365 program and think this is a great way to get athletes working in multi event however I have worked in clubs that don't like the 365 and feel its a waste, I have worked with some great athletes that have worked through the 365 and have seen great improvements in training and in competition.

14/08/17
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fibubb

I really agree with Emma about 8-16 year olds having multi-sport experience and the benefits that such an approach has to offer. All to often in the Sports Therapy and Physiotherapy clinic where I work we still see too many youngsters injured through too much too soon of one sport.
The approach of using a multi- discipline coaching approach has been used for some time in equestrianism for both the benefit of the rider, though mostly the horse so I'm a little surprised that it might be seen as a new/ revolutionary approach for athletics as it really does make sense.

19/08/17
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pippaglen

Hi Fiona!
I have seen many athletes with injuries due to over training in athletics which is really frustrating for me as an ex athlete my coach always advised I warmed up, cooled down and stretched after session very rarely I was injured as we only trained 3 days a week but out of training I trained myself. I was trained to take part in all athletic events didn't matter if I wasn't good I still took part but my main events was endurance running 800m, 10,000m which I loved. Now you see very young training for event specific and not having the chance to train for anything else. As an athletics coach I'm licenced to coach most events and feel if your becoming an athletic coach unless you become events specific you should be coaching athletes different events and concentrating on the foundations of ABC.

When I see athletes today I notice how young they are participating in the Olympic games and then I see how young they retire, is this because they over trained at such a young aether body's can no longer cope with the stress and stain of training? Maybe this is another blog.

The lady I used to coach alongside was an amazing coach, we would coach the athletic 365 and if we felt when the athletes turned 13 that if the athletes were doing well in a specific event we would talk with that event specific coach and 1 training day a week the athletes would go to that training session but would come back to us for ABC and continue training for other events. This work brilliantly and athletes took part in multiple events in competition.

20/08/17
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